Can you "help" an alcoholic friend?
January 17, 2009 3:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I help a friend who is an alcoholic?

I've made friends with someone over the year who has some serious alcohol and alcohol-related issues. (Drinks a lot every night, depression, got fired from last job because of it, DUIs, etc.)

I really like this person--there are many wonderful things about her. It is very clear that she wishes to continue drinking, and doesn't see it as a problem if you ask her about it.

Do you have any words of wisdom or any experiences you could share with me? Either as a friend of an alcoholic or as someone who is a recovering one? Just stay out of her way and let life take its course? Recommend therapy for her? Just chill, and avoid ever talking about it? I'm hesitant to ever bring up the issue with her because I foresee it will just result in an argument: I will sound judgmental and she will sound defensive.
posted by uxo to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've dealt with alcoholism in my family fora while, now, and it doesn't really get easier as time goes on.

I used to get really angry-- why are you doing this, don't you understand that you have responsibilities, you have so much to live for, so on and so forth. But when all of my interjecting didn't help, I ended up beating myself up for not being able to do anything. I finally made my way to therapy, where I learned a really, really simple concept that saved my sanity.

When it all boils down, you really can't change or "help" someone. All you can do is change how you react to the situation. An alcoholic in denial will get angry with you for bringing it up, they'll resent you, they'll turn it around and make it your fault. My family member, when confronted, said "I may be an alcoholic, but I'm a damn good one."

If addiction, depression, losing jobs/financial stability and legal trouble isn't stopping your friend, you're just going to have to wait and see what it takes for them to sober up. It may never happen. Look out for yourself.
posted by riane at 3:38 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


My (admittedly brutal) suggestion would be to keep your distance - at least not to invest any emotional energy in that person's wellbeing. I know serious booze addicts, and the worst of them are busy drinking themselves to death and dragging down anyone silly enough to invest heavily in trying to help them.
posted by rodgerd at 4:07 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Alcoholic here. Wisdom about getting better from an alcohol addiction is that you don't get better until you can't get worse. She obviously hasn't hit bottom yet if she doesn't think it is a problem. That said, it isn't going to be helpful for you to try to convince her of that. As a crowd, alcoholics tend not to deal well with others pointing out their shortcomings. This is why AA works so well: alcoholics tell other alcoholics about themselves and their own personal experiences, and let the target form their own conclusions about their drinking.

I agree that you should insulate yourself from this self-destructive person. Probably one of the kindest things you can do for her is to tell her that you care about her, that you are worried about her, and that you realize from the fact that she doesn't think she has a problem that she is not going to seek help anytime soon. Let her know that you want to support her in any healthy steps she wishes to take and you look forward to the day that she starts taking them. But that you cannot and will not sit by and watch her destroy herself. She's destroying your friend after all. And you wouldn't sit by and watch anyone else do that, would you?
posted by greekphilosophy at 4:43 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's really hard. From my experience, I maintained a friendship for awhile by trying to focus and encourage the friend parts of my friend and not condone the alcoholic parts.

So if he called me while he was drunk, I'd tell him that I couldn't talk to him when he was drunk, but that he could call me sober. If I ran into him after seeing him plastered, I'd wince and tell him that he's no so much fun plastered, but then change the subject and try to make non-drinking plans. If he reminded me that we used to get drunk together and tell me I'd deserted him, I'd acknowledge the old days, but point out that it was our close friendship that I missed, not the kamikazes. And besides, drinking didn't used to get in the way of either of us being successful at work.

It worked for awhile.
posted by desuetude at 4:48 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could try AlAnon. They should be listed in your local phone book. If you don't like the first meeting you go to, try a different one. The 12 step model is not for everyone, but it may give you some insight and tools for dealing with your friend.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:55 PM on January 17, 2009

Tell her that's you're ready to help anytime she asks. Till then, she doesn't want to change the relationship she has with alcohol, and you can't have an influence.

Exception: if she does things that affect you negatively, speak up. Talk about the behavior itself: she's late a lot, she's less fun when she drinks, she calls you too late at night, she asks for your help when she has a problem that wouldn't have happened if she were sober.
posted by wryly at 5:02 PM on January 17, 2009

The only thing I know that has ever worked to get someone to cut back on their drinking was their partner or best friend saying to them (when they're sober) "You know...after your third or fourth drink, you're just not fun to be around any more. You [get sloppy, act like a stupid ass, stop talking entirely, embarrass me in front of others, pass out as soon as we get home and then you're in a foul mood until the late afternoon]. You're fine up until then, and after that...well, it's just getting old. It's boring." Sometimes I think they have just left it at that, sometimes they say explicitly "You can have your fun, but I'm just going to leave when it stops being fun for me."

Some people don't change, but some have cut back to, if not a healthy level of drinking, then to a point where they stop being boors with perpetual hangovers. Many people who enjoy being drunk all the time incorrectly assume that everyone around them is having as much fun as they are and that their level of drunkenness factors into that. And, I think, telling them they are "an alcoholic" simply doesn't compute. They think "No, I'm not anything like [that archetypal made-for-TV-movie alcoholic]" and they're right and they might not have ever met someone who is. But they do know people that act like jackasses at parties and/or are generally unpleasant in the daytime. And that's a vision of themselves that, though they didn't see it, can plausibly believe a sane person might see in them.

In one case it was a partner saying this, and the person improved quickly. In another, it was a close friend and it took several months of them (and probably other people) saying "Ok, I'm going home now, have fun" and "No, not tomorrow [when you're hungover] but maybe Monday [when you won't be]?" and "Friday is cool, but I'd rather just go to the movies. If you want to hit the bar afterwards, you're on your own."

It's not much, but apart from the person figuring it out themselves or their doctor explicitly spelling out the damage they were doing to themselves, that's the only thing I've personally seen have any effect. (and on preview, is a pretty longwinded version fo what was said above)
posted by K.P. at 5:06 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I support what others have noted above, even the more brutal suggestion(s). However, I also think some last ditch efforts (courage) are in order before you let go.

Ultimately, she'll have to arrive at a horrific, nasty place that satisfies her understanding, not anyone else's. This may be coming to underneath an automobile, it may be barfing blood, it may just be too many days of being drunk, isolated, and not returning calls or email.

To avoid the judgemental/argumentative cycle I suggest giving her a note that expresses your love and admiration for her. And I say a note because that makes the dialogue a one way street. That it's really hurting you to see her this way, that you fear you'll be the one they call to identify her body. Give her some perspective on the positive, the good memories, the beautiful sides of her but also point out how this drinking is taking her out and those who care about her. See, in many ways... she doesn't give a fuck right now. She most likely doesn't see, accept love, or perhaps she's just too troubled or cool for love.

So send this to her. Maybe list a few rehabs or AA meetings towards the end of the note. Tell her you'd be willing to go with her. Tell her you'd like to see her sometime soon, in a setting where there's no drinking involved but if this continues... you'll have to let the friendship go for now or at least have some significant distance.

It's really tough but one of the ways to help people with addiction is by letting them find their own way.

She'll come back. And she'll probably be a much healthier, happier person when she does. It may be a week, a month, 10 years or 20. But she'll eventually come back.
posted by uhom at 5:07 PM on January 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, an afterthought...

Ultimately, she'll have to arrive at a horrific, nasty place that satisfies her understanding, not anyone else's. This may be coming to underneath an automobile, it may be barfing blood, it may just be too many days of being drunk, isolated, and not returning calls or email.

I just wanted to drive home the issue of perspective. What I described there could take a week, it could be 5 years, it could be 20. Nobody knows. Nobody can force this upon her. Not the law, not a trauma surgeon, not another lost job.

This is what addicts and alcoholics refer to as "bottom" --as others noted above. There's tons of talk about "hitting bottom" in NA/AA meetings.

And lastly, AA literature can be sorta strange to the uninitiated (or "civilians" or "normal people") but maybe these titles might be helpful to her. There's probably others but both of these were written by and about women:

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood - by Koren Zailckas
Drinking - A Love Story - by Caroline Knapp

posted by uhom at 5:20 PM on January 17, 2009

Sit down with her when she is sober and tell her what you told us about how you feel about it. Tell her the straight truth. If she resists or denies it, then say that you can't be friends with her until she goes into recovery. To continue your friendship under these conditions is to validate and accept her behavior and you can't do that. Tell her you will be there for her when she is ready to deal with it.

If instead you remain friends with her, your concern and desire to help puts you at some risk for getting sucked into a dynamic in which you think you are helping but may actually be enabling her. You will find it helpful to attend some Al-Anon and/or AA meetings.
posted by conrad53 at 6:04 PM on January 17, 2009

Sounds like she's in the denial stage. She has to admit she has a problem, and a desire to stop drinking.

- Don't spread the word about her being alcoholic. It closes doors for the person in question, which leads to further depression, which leads to further drinking.
- Don't nag the person about it. She knows deep down that it's a problem, and doesn't want to hear it.
- Do find other distractions for the person. When you're busy, the urge to drink is less. Although when you drink a lot, it can make you nauseous or sleepy, so the person may be reluctant to leave the 'safety zone' of their residence.
- Do be understanding. It's an addiction, and not easy to cut back and stop. Going cold turkey can be life threatening. Find ways to help her cut back, as the above mentioned distractions. The 'hey, I can have more fun, and do more things when I'm not drinking' realization.
- There's a few reasons to get hooked on it. One is blood sugar since alcohol readily gets converted into glucose by the liver. Another is anxiety problems, which it helps bring one down from an anxiety attack, or from another standpoint help keep from getting one in the first place.

Help her. But do it carefully.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 6:21 PM on January 17, 2009

The only aspect of her life that you have any control over is whether or not you're in it. It's important to know that you can't help your friend--only she can do that, and if she's serious about drinking, then it will almost certainly require some form of structured recovery program such as AA.

The only meaningful incentive you can add to the equation is to tell your friend that you care about her and it hurts you to see her destroying herself, and you're not going to stick around and watch her die. Tell her what qualities about her you like and tell her you'd love to have her as part of your life if she ever chooses to be sober. And then walk away. But know that right now, alcohol is probably more important to her than your friendship is.

It sucks.

Going to an AlAnon meeting and asking for advice may give you more insight into the problem.
posted by kprincehouse at 7:31 PM on January 17, 2009

Just to offer another option for you: there are alternatives to AA for people who are problem drinkers. "Moderation Management" is a movement that is somewhat skeptical of the disease model of alcoholism (which might alternatively be called, for example, a "maladaptive habit") and places more emphasis on self-empowerment than AA does. Couple places to start are here and here.

This isn't for everybody, but it could be useful for your friend or helpful for getting her started thinking. When I was drinking, I know that the "I am powerless" thing was a major stumbling block in the way of trying an AA meeting. I didn't need to feel any more powerless, and the fact is that I wasn't powerless over alcohol... though I felt like a failure and was depressed as shit. What I needed to regain my self-esteem, and relearn how it felt to be in control of myself, which would make quitting drinking feel and BE attainable, which in turn would make me feel better about myself. I thought of it as starting an upward spiral, in contrast to the downward spiral of being depressed--drinking--being more depressed--etc. Anyway maybe your friend's in a similar place.

MM does not push drinking nor claim that any alcoholic is capable of learning how to drink moderately. But it does say, if your drinking worries or scares you, but you don't want to commit to a life of abstinence, here are rational steps for changing your thinking and reducing your intake. Its first step is a 30-day abstinence period. When I first read "Responsible Drinking," I wasn't ready to do that. But quite a while later, when I was really ready and determined to change, I knew how to start. Many people start with MM and then choose abstinence because they find it easier than constant self-monitoring.

Your friend could go to rehab and do the 12 steps, or she could look on her own for a cognitive-behavioral therapist sympathetic to MM--either way, you should strongly encourage therapy.

On the subject of confronting your friend: Does she admit that she's depressed? Is she on an anti-depressant? If you can have a heart-to-heart with her, I'd start with the unhappiness, since that's likely the root of the problem. Ask her if she feels happy, and if not, if she knows why not. If and when you can bring alcohol into it, tell her, "Look, alcohol is very effective as a quick-acting, SHORT-LIVED anti-depressant that quickly turns into a depressant. You are self-medicating for depression with a drug that just makes you more depressed. You're probably feeling guilty and scared about your alcohol use, and even scareder of committing to giving it up. You have to believe that you will be much, much happier once you have power over this, rather than it having control over you." Be loving and sympathetic, and appeal to her strength as a person and her desire to feel herself a strong, self-determining person. She can change. Best of luck to both of you.
posted by torticat at 8:56 PM on January 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

One of the best things I learned when dealing with my still-drinking friends was this: never stand in the way of anyone's rock bottom. Another was: I do not have to accept unacceptable behaviour. If she misses an arranged outing with you, if she says anything out of order to you or generally behaves badly, don't protect her from her behaviour.

After seven years of "getting away with it", one such confrontation really made me look at myself for the first time. It was uncofortable, it was months until I got help afterwards and I was mad at that person for a long time. But I'm three years sober now and the friends who tried to help are precious to me now.

Good luck.
posted by katiecat at 11:44 PM on January 17, 2009

If nothing else, going to a few open AA meetings will open your eyes to a subset of the populace which you can scarce believe exists. The stories are unreal. Astonishing people, many of them, and courageous also. It'll give you an insight, maybe, into the world your friend inhabits. A good friend of mine who is in AA calls it 'The Greatest Show on Earth" -- just sit back and watch these remarkably undisciplined people learning to live their lives according to a fairly tight set of principles. Comical. But dead serious, also. It's raw, it's real, it's life on the line, and death also, it's funny as hell -- they laugh about the damndest things, and it's real laughter, too, belly laughs; if they do find the peace, they get these smiles I've come to call "AA smiles" by which I mean smiles that come all the way up and into their eyes.

And catch a few AlAnon meetings also, which are meetings for friends and loved ones of people who are suffering alcoholism, whether still drinking or in 'recovery' ie no longer drinking but staggering under the load of life with a hatfull of principles to learn and practice.

It's a real slice.

I've never been in combat but I've read about how the bullshit drops once the bullets start flying and the bombs start dropping, and there is a bit of a sense of that in these 'recovery' rooms -- there's nothing to hide, it's all out there, these people are naked, emotionally, and raw and worn and aching to change.

But your friend. She might not make it to these rooms, or any other, you may stand around a box with her body in it. Alcoholism is devastating, drunken driving is dangerous as all get-out, poor choices are made, bodies are ruined, brains do get wet, in time, soggy and muddled and confused and lost lost lost. Sometimes I think it's almost better if they get to die, rather than live out a long drawn-out pain-filled stretch of grimness. Sadly, it's out of your hands; often, it's out of their hands also, it can just go on and on, spiraling downward, and no hope, it's sad and meaningless and terrifying, like accounting classes, or marriage.

It's a cutting edge experience, it'll give you wisdom, it'll give you tools for other situations also.

Good luck, to you and to your friend.

I wish you peace.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:53 AM on January 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your thoughtful answers, everyone. It seems there's consensus here that this person needs to hit bottom and accept they need help before anyone can do anything helpful.

Yes, she missed two outings with me, with an excuse that never sounded quite right. (Never got a call or anything, she just never "showed up.") I chose to accept her excuses, because at the time I didn't have much experience with this kind of behavior...I mean, in general people call you if they can't make something, right?

Since then, I no longer make plans with her ahead of time. Our outings are always spontaneous, if we just happen to be together at the right place at the right time.

She knows I've been irked, so she generally tries to hide any signs of drinking from me. I feel very sad about all of this.

Thanks for both the kind wishes and no-nonsense advice. I'm not sure how to proceed yet, but I feel at least I won't jump into something with fairy tale expectations.
posted by uxo at 4:03 AM on January 18, 2009

Thirding (or fourthing) the AlAnon. Just go there first. It will give you some perspective that you won't get reading.

It's actually really helped me get along a lot better with my family, who started going to AlAnon because of my own drinking problem. I don't personally feel the need to attend AA meetings regularly, but the first one was a fucking eye opener.
posted by chlorus at 6:53 AM on January 18, 2009

For your friend, it's up to her if/when she confronts her alcohol problem. The best you can do is not do anything to enable it. If I were in your position, I wouldn't drink with her. Period. Ever. If she wants to go out, say that you're not interested in drinking tonight - can you do something else? If she wonders why the change of heart, just say you're having health issues that you'd rather not talk about or that drinking has become "boring" or whatever.

For yourself, to cope, (as others have suggested) Al Anon is a terrific support group for the friends and family of people with alcohol problems. They can probably answer many of the questions that you have and provide you with a support network to deal with any future problems. Keeping yourself sane is one of the best things you can do for ANY friend.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:22 AM on January 18, 2009

Give her the pamphlets and the support group numbers and the number of a therapist.
Offer to drive her and go with her to the appointment.

But then she's on her own.

And I second the motion to not get emotionally involved. Essentially, she is wallowing in her own **** (sorry to be so crass about it) and she must be the one to pull herself out. It is an unhealthy, imbalanced relationship because she will always put her needs and addictions and issues before you.

Let her get her **** together first. It's better for her and for you.

PS At least for me, when I've started spiraling down, I've shut everyone out so I can hit bottom on my own without dragging my loved ones to hell with me. And by the next day, I've made a plan to get out of it & get help. Everyone's different but that's the only thing that has ever helped me.
posted by HolyWood at 11:12 AM on January 18, 2009

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